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“It Becomes Selfish to Talk About Yourself:” Tommaso Santambrogio’s Cuba in ‘Oceans Are the Real Continents’

By Amy Omar

Black and white still of a young couple looking at each other, in their kitchen.

Alex and Edith in Oceans Are the Real Continents. Courtesy of Cinecittà

Tommaso Santambrogio’s Oceans Are the Real Continents (2023), which opens on a black-and-white shot of an older Cuban woman sweeping her doorway, reminiscent of the indulgent, and seemingly quotidian scenes in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days, is a film that captures the human condition in all its humor, pain and joy. Santambrogio’s debut docudrama feature, which premiered at Venice Days in 2023, is a triptych that follows three generations of characters in San Antonio de los Baños, where time seemingly stands still. 

Entrancingly poetic, Oceans Are the Real Continents originated as a short film directed by  Santambrogio in 2019 and bears the same title. The short features Alex and Edith—a young artist couple—who transform their daily routines into expressions of intimacy for the other. In the feature, Santambrogio expands on Alex and Edith’s story as they try to preserve their love while still pursuing their independent dreams—Alex as a dance teacher in Cuba and Edith as a puppeteer in the process of relocating to Rome, Italy. Intertwined with their story are narratives featuring Milagros, an elderly woman who sells peanut cones and spends her days reading letters from a former lover; and Frank and Alain, two nine-year-old boys who dream of emigrating to the U.S. to play for the Yankees. 

All played by non-professional actors, these characters come together to share their stories and celebrate the small joys of their daily lives while also facing the uncertainty of their futures. Oceans Are the Real Continents played at Film at Lincoln Center during the annual “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema” series June 2–6, and is distributed by Fandango and Film Movement. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


DOCUMENTARY: You’re Italian and made a film shot in Cuba—how did this come about? 

TOMMASO SANTAMBROGIO: Though I’m originally from Northern Italy, I’ve been living between Milan and Cuba since I was a child. My father is connected to Cuba, so when I was a child I grew up in Cuban culture. The first time I ever left Italy was to go to Cuba and then I visited every three years. So I have grown up in Cuba and have seen the changes. It’s a country that I am really attached to. 

D: I love the idea of having an adopted culture—you’re not from somewhere or there is no blood line but you feel a strong connection. It’s fascinating when someone is not from a place but they are still able to feel that heart and culture and to bring it to life on screen. I’m curious about the perspective you bring from an outsider’s point of view.

TS: The only way to tell a story that is not your own story or when you’re not from that country is to be more open to listening, to be a vehicle to the story, and not be the protagonist of that story. Nowadays, cinema focuses on talking about yourself but I think after a while, it becomes selfish to talk about yourself. There are increasing nationalist attitudes and the closing of borders. It’s important to be open to others, to listen, and to have an anthropological approach to art, and even to life. 

Aside from my approach, it was really important to meet the right people—Alexander, Edith, Milagro, and the children. These are all really close friends; we are kind of a family. If I had not met them it would not have been possible to make Oceans. It would have been another kind of movie. Although I wrote the film, we were constantly writing together and sharing experiences together. We exchanged opinions about the characters, took their past memories, and built up their narrative arcs out of their real experiences. 

D: I know Oceans started off as a short film with just Edith and Alexander. How did you meet them? 

TS: I was studying in film school in Cuba and I had this idea of exploring this theme of separation. I experienced a lot of people who left and could not come back. I saw migration caused by sports, like boxing and baseball. 

A Cuban producer introduced me to Edith because she had just broken up with a boyfriend who left because of this type of migration and she had a lot to say about this topic. After we spent the whole day talking she said, “I must introduce you to my close friend Alexander,” and then we spent 3 weeks together. Then he took me to meet Milagros, who lives across from La Casa de la Cultura where Alexander teaches dance. He took me to have a coffee at Milagros’ house and I read her real letters. 

D: These are her real letters that she reads in the films? 

TS: They are based on real letters from a former lover, her ex-husband, who she had a baby with. Some of the letters were really short or had a lot of references that could not be explained in the film. But I wrote the film’s letter after I read all of her letters and together we built up their narrative structure. 

D: When did you decide to expand Oceans to incorporate the other stories and characters? 

TS: I had this idea of telling three different stories on the topic of separation. Present, past, and future. I originally shot it without children but then realized I needed the children to tell the story I wanted to tell. 

D: How did you find the children? 

TS: Alexander and I cast the children. It was the only part of the film that had cast actors. However, casting here in San Antonio de los Baños, a very small place, is untraditional. We spent two months meeting all types of children and running through playful exercises with them. This helped us measure if they could be comfortable with the camera and other people. 

Alain was very easy to cast as he was the more extroverted child character. When I met Frank, even though he was very shy, I found him to be so cinematic and touching. We did a workshop for six months where they took baseball lessons and dance classes with Alexander and visited all of the locations. We would play and create the dynamics together. Alain and Frank never had a real script; their scenes were all based on their memory of what we played and our experiences spent together. 

D: I know these actors are non-professional actors—can you speak to your filming process? 

TS: I wrote the script beforehand with the characters’ input, but once shooting started, I left space for improvising and change because we were all so connected in what we were doing we had the freedom without any pressure to stick to one thing. 

With Alexander and Edith, we wrote together so they were living and acting as they were writing. With Milagros, we focused on the body and her movements and actions. To me, she represents the body of Cuba. We worked on her pace, actions, relationship with the house and the train station. It was more of a performative attitude. With the children, they never read the script so it was about creating the dynamics in the right way through memory and games. 

It was really important that they could be natural and spontaneous. I wasn’t interested in imposing my words in their mouths. I wanted them to be free to express themselves in the way they would normally react and talk. It was the same with Edith and Alexander, but it was a bit different because they are artists and naturally more conscious of their actions.

D: It’s interesting because you’re taking real people, real stories but then dramatizing it a little bit. I know you come from a documentary background and Oceans is considered a docudrama.

TS: I see Oceans similar to what the French call fiction du réel—fiction of reality. It’s interesting to do this type of cinema because we are living in this new society where artificial intelligence takes up so much space and the borders between what is real and not real are so thin. To get back to reality you can’t start from your own mind, you must take what is real and tell a story that is really necessary. That’s why I got into documentaries in the first place. I love fiction and experimental cinema, but still the experimentation in documentaries is really the most interesting part of cinema nowadays.

D: Who are some of your filmmaker influences? 

TS: I have so many filmmakers who have inspired me in many ways. Growing up, early Italian cinema and Neorealism was a big influence, with directors like Pasolini, Antonioni, Rossellini. Nowadays, I love Miguel Gomes, who works between documentary and fiction. I was at Cannes last week and was really surprised, in a positive way, that directors like Jia Zhangke, an iconic Chinese director, were working on documentaries in order to create that fiction story in a new and different way. So many masters are getting back to that perspective. 

D: You shot your early short films yourself, which is common for documentary filmmakers. However, for Oceans you collaborated with cinematographer Lorenzo Casadio Vannucci. Did you like sharing the camera? 

TS: He is really a master, Lorenzo. He studied in Cuba and had worked on a lot of documentaries prior to Oceans. We first collaborated on a mid-length docudrama last year called Taxibol which premiered at Telluride in 2023. We split up the filming and for the first time, I started to let go. I was used to having the camera in my hands and controlling the lighting and aesthetic, but trusting someone who can give you even more than you can do is amazing. I love the collective process of filmmaking. Having the right people is the most important part of the movie. 

D: It’s uncanny because though parts are fictionalized, Edith actually does move to Italy so these actors are experiencing real things before they even happen in the film. Do you think this had an impact on your actors?  

TS: So many of our characters were actually in the process of leaving Cuba while we were filming. Edith left for Italy a day after shooting. She was actually doing the same embassy process that she goes through in the film, in real life. There was so much cinéma vérité. It was getting more painful for all of the actors during shooting because they were digging up what they were feeling in the past and doing a psychoanalysis of what they were living through. 

Amy Omar is a Turkish-American writer and filmmaker living in NYC. She has contributed to publications such as Screen Slate, Brooklyn RailMarkaz Review, and Electric Literature. Her films have screened at SXSW and various film festivals worldwide. You can find her online at